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One of the few researchers studying vinyl chloride's health effects has warnings

Juliane Beier in her lab at the University of Pittsburgh
Posted at 3:47 PM, Feb 17, 2023

What is vinyl chloride and why is it so toxic? Researchers have been working on fully understanding this topic, as concerned citizens in East Palestine, Ohio worry about their future.

Earlier this month, a train derailed in the small village of East Palestine near Ohio's border with Pennsylvania. Multiple cars containing vinyl chloride spilled their contents onto the ground, which is suspected of leading to contamination of the water, and the air after a fire.

The compound is used to make things like PVC pipes and packaging.

“Vinyl chloride is a gas,” said Doctor Juliane Beier, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh. She is a member of the Pittsburgh Liver Research Center.

“Vinyl chloride is produced pretty heavily. I think it’s about 27 million tons annually, roughly, worldwide,” she said.

Beier is one of the only researchers in the U.S. specifically looking at the impacts of this chemical on our bodies, especially in low doses.

“At high concentrations, what you will feel is dizziness, irritation to the skin, eyes, mucous membrane, and so on and so forth,” she explained. “At lower concentrations, it gets a little more tricky because you don't see any immediate effects.”

So far, her research has shown that when you inhale the gas, it can bind with your DNA, which ultimately can lead to cancer. This happens when the gas metabolizes in your liver into toxic metabolites, causing toxic effects.

“It actually changes the cells ability to respire, to breathe. When we do experiments in the lab we actually see that the respiration rate of animals goes down,” Beier said.

“Not only does it enhance early stages of liver disease, or later stages for that matter, but also it will enhance tumorigenesis,” she said.

So how much is too much exposure? And does long term exposure to low levels have an impact? The answer is largely unknown.

“There’s a lot of research that still needs to be done,” Beier said. “We’ve been studying this for several years now and really just trying to emphasize how complicated and broad of a subject this actually is.”

Back in 2021, a train derailed in New Jersey. Hazardous gas leaked out of a broken train car, and evacuations were ordered after vinyl chloride was found in the air. Beier said she hasn’t been able to find any research on if the population’s health was monitored after the incident.

Officials have known vinyl chloride is dangerous to humans for decades.

“They found it, I think it was 1974, in Louisville, Kentucky at a B.F. Goodrich plant. There were a few, I think it was three or four cases, of a very rare tumor called hepatic angiosarcoma. Because this tumor is so rare they could pinpoint it to the exposure of vinyl chloride. These were all workers within that factory,” Beier said.

Beier said OSHA lowered the safety standards for the exposure of vinyl chloride after that. “Since then it's been at 1 part per million over an 8 hour work day, and that’s where it’s been ever since,” she said.

She is trying to further research on the compound.

“What we are really looking into is how low levels of vinyl chlorides, so concentrations that are currently considered safe, can enhance underlying disease,” she said.

So what’s next for East Palestine from a public health perspective?

“The derailment happened, the spill happened, we will get environmental data, but what now needs to happen, my first step always in communities like that, is to create a community advisory board,” said Maureen Lichtveld, the dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh. She has been working as an environmental health scientist for more than three decades.

Licktveld said once that’s done, they can look at studies that need to be done there.

“We need to collect information about the people,” she said

Beier said if you are near the derailment site, there are a couple things you should watch out for moving forward.

“Even though the outside air is deemed OK, and even though maybe the water concentrations of vinyl chloride are deemed OK, it can suffuse into enclosed spaces,” Beier said. “It will accumulate within enclosed spaces.”

She said activated charcoal, HEPA filters, and masks will not prevent exposure.